Why Your Brain is Biased Towards Negativity and 5 Ways To Deal With It

“The more you’re able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity you’ll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place.”

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Negativity bias is the name given by psychologists to the human tendency to be much more likely to be influenced by and to recall negative experiences, instead of neutral or positive experiences.

It was first documented by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer in an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good”.

The Science behind Negativity Bias

Studies conducted by John Cacioppo Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago showed that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news.

The study involved showing people three types of images.

  • Images known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza).
  • Images certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat).
  • Images known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer).

As these images were being reviewed, Cacioppo and his colleagues recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place. Their findings revealed a greater surge in the brain’s electrical activity when viewing stimuli it deemed negative.

Before you threaten your brain with eviction, please know that its tendency towards the negative is a result of evolution geared towards our survival more than anything else. It’s what helped our ancestors to stay alive. When you could not tell friend from foe be it another human, an animal or even a plant.

Dr. Rick Hansen, in his book “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” describes our ancestors as living in a world of carrots and sticks. Carrots being rewards (food, sex, shelter) and sticks being punishment (predators, disease, injury).

He states that “Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks, react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.”

As time passed, the threat level decreased. We learnt that not everyone is trying to kill us. That some animals can be pets and that a lot of the plants out there are stuffed full of nutrients that we need. The role of the brain did not evolve at pace.

This is a problem because left unchecked the negativity bias can become a serious impediment to our productivity, happiness and quality of life. Here are five strategies to keep it at bay.

5 Strategies for Dealing With the Brains’ Negativity Bias

  1. Dr. Rick Hanson recommends that we should always be mindful of the degree to which our brain is wired to make us afraid. He also encourages building an awareness of the forces around us that beat the “drum of alarm.”  When you know the immense power of negativity, you’ll be less likely to invite it into your environment. This goes for things as well as people. He cautions though against donning rose-colored glasses or sticking one’s head in the sand.
  2. Make it a point to take a moment to savor positive experiences. No matter how small. By doing so you engage fully in the experience and are conscious and mindful of its every detail. This will help you create an area of refuge” a strategy recommended below.
  3. Gretchen Rubin—owner of “The Happiness Project”–recommends that you create an “area of refuge” in your brain. A place you can think of whenever you find your mind wandering to a negative memory. That “area of refuge” can be made up of good memories, inspiring quotes, or lines from poems etc.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. By focusing on the good you’ll gradually be rewiring your brain for happiness. Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and a leading expert in positive psychology offers several tips on keeping a gratitude journal. Some tips include focusing on people rather than things. Savoring the unexpected. Writing in your journal with depth about what you are grateful for as often as you can.
  5. Practice realistic optimism. This tip comes from Tony Schwartz, Chief Executive Officer of The Energy Project. He recommends telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given circumstance without denying or minimizing the facts.

You’re going up against your brain and you know first hand how stubborn it can be. Don’t give up though because as Tony Schwartz said, “The more you’re able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity you’ll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place.”